The 127-year-old La Biennale di Venezia has invited Shenandoah Conservatory to perform as part of the 2022 Biennale Musica: Out of Stage in Venice, Italy. Working carefully with multiple partners, Director of Opera and Associate Professor Ella Marchment, B.M., and Choral Artist-in-Residence and Director of Conservatory Choir Austin Thorpe, Ph.D., will lead a group of approximately 30 choral, opera, dance and theatre students to be part of the 66th International Festival of Contemporary Music (Wednesday, Sept. 14, through Sunday, Sept. 25) and present “Native American Inspirations” on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. (CEST) at the Ca’ Giustinian – Sala delle Colonne. Marchment will stage and direct the new cross-genre, collaborative production and Dr. Thorpe will prepare and conduct the musical elements.
Mary Angela Schroth, a champion of contemporary art and Winchester native, brought Shenandoah University (SU) to the attention of the Biennale’s musical director, Lucia Ronchetti, who was excited to feature Native American composers through this project. Shenandoah University is offering the only school-affiliated, student-performed event on the entire festival program.
“Repeatedly, Shenandoah Conservatory has been at the forefront of collaborative and innovative programming,” said Dean and Professor of Music Michael Stepniak, Ed.D, “and I couldn’t be more excited for our students or prouder of the exceptional and inclusive project that professors Marchment and Thorpe have created.”
The “Native American Inspirations” project is a new multidisciplinary music-drama designed to amplify and celebrate the musical world, culture and heritage of Native Americans. Featured project composers include Brent Michael Davids (Mohican/Munsee-Lenape), Dawn Avery (Kanièkéha Mohawk), Russell Wallace (St’at’imc Nation/Salish), Jennifer M. Stevens (Oneida/Lakota) and Louis W. Ballard (Quapaw/Cherokee).
“The Venice Biennale is the epicenter of European arts,” said Marchment. “Attending is an unparalleled experience in itself, but contributing to such a prestigious event in this profound way with a cross-disciplinary new work paying homage to the land that the school resides on shows Shenandoah to be a progressive and thoughtful institution committed to advancing the artistic genres. It’s an event that makes me really proud to be part of its community.”
This project centers around Native American inspiration, drawing together its rich and unique musical and creative history and its intersection with contemporary classical music and opera. Specifically, it will amalgamate the world of Native American composers who have contributed to operatic and choral repertoire and dramas. Davids’ “City of Water” was commissioned by Shenandoah Conservatory and the ensemble will present its world premiere during the event.
“I am thrilled to be part of the Venice Biennale with our capable students and renowned opera director Ella Marchment,” said Thorpe. “It has been a dream to arrive at Shenandoah Conservatory and immediately begin working on a project with such depth and significance. Professor Marchment has pieced together a stunningly beautiful program of Native American inspirations, working closely with an exceptional team of Native American composers.”
With the composers’ insight and guidance, the goal is to bring their compositions together into one cohesive whole music-drama, enabling their collected music to give new life to Native American history and storytelling.
The initiative pushes the boundaries of vocal performance, being performed entirely a cappella with handheld percussion. It integrates music, theatre and dance in order to explore the potential of what contemporary American music-drama can be. It pays homage to the history of Shenandoah Conservatory itself (named after the Native American legend of Zynodoa), and has the potential to offer European and American audiences alike a greater awareness of the story of the land on which we reside, learn and educate.
‘NATIVE AMERICAN INSPIRATIONS’ PROGRAM
Brent Michael Davids “Mohican Soup” (1997)
Brent Michael Davids “Night Chant” (1996)
Brent Michael Davids “City of Water” (2022, world premiere)
Russell Wallace “Journey” (2002, revised 2021)
Louis Ballard “Mohave Bird Dance Songs” (arr. 2003)
Dawn Avery “Teionkhiyàtaton” (2022)
Jennifer Stevens “Beginning of Time” (2022)
Participating Shenandoah Conservatory students returned to campus on Tuesday, Aug. 16, to begin rehearsals. Additional performances in the United States are in the works following the September trip.
The experience was spearheaded by Marchment and former Associate Professor of Voice and Director of Choral Activities Matt Oltman, D.M.A., in spring 2022.
“The project draws from a rich pool of composers who are able to use innovative musical notation to represent the complex rhythmic and melodic traditions of their tribal affiliations,” Dr. Oltman said last spring. “This allows all involved to strive for authenticity as we celebrate the beauty, ritual, poetry, language and vocal colors demanded of each piece.”
“The Venice Biennale is unlike any other arts festival in the world and, for over 120 years, has been one of the most prestigious institutions in the world,” continued Oltman. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be invited to be part of the festival and also to be immersed in a wealth of extraordinary artistic expression that pushes the boundaries of visual art, architecture, cinema, dance, music and theatre.”
Brent Michael Davids is a professional concert and film composer, co-director of the Lenape Center in Manhattan and an enrolled Mohican/Munsee-Lenape citizen of his indigenous nation. As an American Indian music specialist, Davids is in-demand as an educator and consultant for films, television, schools, festivals, seminars and workshops. Davids’ career as a composer spans 45 years, with multiple awards. He is a master performer of American Indian instruments and styles, and a designer of original music instruments, such as flutes made of quartz. Davids holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition from Northern Illinois University (1981) and Arizona State University (1992) respectively, trained at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and apprenticed with film composer Stephen Warbeck (“Shakespeare in Love”). He has garnered distinguished alumni awards from both of the universities he attended, Northern Illinois University (1996) and Arizona State University (2004), and is repeatedly commissioned by the nation’s most celebrated ensembles.
Composer, cellist, vocalist, educator and Grammy-nominated performer of Kanièkéha Mohawk descent Dawn Avery, Ph.D., has worked with musical luminaries Luciano Pavarotti, Sting, John Cage, R. Carlos Nakai, Philip Glass, Charles Wuorinen, Elliott Sharpe and Ornette Coleman. Her music often contains Indigenous soundscapes and decolonizing performance techniques. Dr. Avery has collected awards for her classical compositions from Duke University, the Ford Foundation’s Indigenous Knowledge, Expressive Culture grant program (of the American Composers Forum), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, American Dance Festival, Meet the Composer and more. Her music can be heard on radio, television and film including interviews with Native America Calling, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Avery’s chamber music has been performed at many concert halls and institutions, including the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, North Dakota Contemporary Museum of Art, Carnegie and Merkin Halls, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. Recordings of Avery’s chamber music can be heard on Tulpe (2008) by EngleWinds and Ecology of Being by Duo Concertante (2022), as well as the North American Indian Cello Project (2021). She recently wrote two short operas: “Trials and Tears” for The Alliance for New Music and “Sacagawea” for Fargo-Moorhead Opera/DeCameron Opera Coalition. Avery holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology with primary research in Native classical contemporary composition and the application of Indigenous research techniques.
Russell Wallace is an award-winning composer, producer and traditional singer from the St’at’imc Nation (Salish) in Canada. His music has been part of a number of film and television soundtracks and theatre/dance productions. Wallace has been part of award-winning recording groups such as Kalan Wi and Spiritual Warriors. In 2019, Wallace was the artist-in-residence with the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Wallace also has been the artistic director for the Aboriginal Electronic Music Festival and is currently the director of the Indigenous Vocal Ensemble at Vancouver Community College.
Soprano and Native American classical contemporary composer Jennifer M. Stevens is from De Pere, Wisconsin. Her Oneida name is Waˀkohsi•yó (Wah-goh-see-yo), meaning “Peacock” from the Wolf Clan and her Oglala Lakota name, Winyan Wašté (Wee-Yaw Wah-Shtay) meaning “Good Woman.” Stevens is a nationally known classical contemporary Native American composer, classical singer and visual artist. She studied vocal performance and studio art in college, and received her bachelor’s degree in art at St. Norbert College and an honorary master’s degree in traditional Oneida pottery. She has been a featured artist, singer and classical contemporary composer on PBS-Wisconsin Public Television documentaries “Wisconsin Life” and “Owe•la’ (Oh-way-la): The Music of Jennifer Stevens.” “The Encyclopedia of Native American Music in North America” by Elaine Keillor and Timothy Archambault noted her as an upcoming classical singer and composer. She has performed her Native American art songs in Oneida or Lakota at the Heard Museum, First Nations Composer Initiative Concerts, Green Bay WBAY-TV2 CP Telethons, Green Bay Symphony Orchestra and Crazy Horse Monument.
Dr. Louis W. Ballard (1931–2007) was a composer of Cherokee and Quapaw descent whose works are performed regularly by major symphony orchestras, choral societies, chamber music ensembles and ballet companies. His credits include major premieres at Carnegie Hall, Smithsonian Institution and Lincoln Center, to name just a few. Ballard also produced, directed and composed the music for the nation’s first all-Indian halftime show at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C. Ballard was honored as the first American composer to present a concert of his music in the new Beethoven-House Chamber Music Hall adjoining Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, Germany. As well, Ballard was honored with grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. A Lifetime Musical Achievement Award was presented to Ballard from the First Americans in the Arts in February 1997, in Beverly Hills, California. Ballard was born near Quapaw, Oklahoma, and studied music theory at Oklahoma University and Tulsa University, earning a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Music Education and Master of Music in music composition; Doc. Music, h.c., from the College of Santa Fe and William Jewell College. His family forebears include a principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a medicine chief of the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma with Scottish, French and English antecedents. As a composer, music educator and award-winning music journalist he was devoted to the values of Native American culture.